Brian Bennett grew up in a three-bedroom house with seven brothers and sisters on a fading stretch of West Florence Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles. By the time he was 22, he was paying his rent in a fashionable apartment complex off Wilshire Boulevard with $100 bills and doing business from Detroit to Denmark, where, according to federal investigators, he once ran up an $11,000 hotel bill in four days.
He moved through the world with what the manager of his apartment called "an untouchable attitude." Cloaked in jogging suits and tennis shoes, he drove an array of expensive cars, received couriers at all hours of the night and, on occasion, brought shopping bags full of cash upstairs to his fourth-floor apartment, according to the manager.
When police surveillance into his alleged cocaine empire grew too severe late last summer, he pulled up stakes and moved to Tempe, Ariz., purchasing a half-million-dollar home in a swank housing tract and spending another $95,000 to build tennis and basketball courts and a swimming pool in the back yard.
The crews were still at work Tuesday, but Bennett, now 24, wasn't there to appreciate it. He was in federal custody, contemplating the apparent end of what investigators characterize as a remarkably fast ascension into the highest reaches of cocaine trafficking.
Pudgy (5-foot-11, 260 pounds) with a nearly shaven head, Bennett symbolized the kind of drug dealer that people in South Los Angeles call a "high roller." He did not appear to be rooted in neighborhood street gangs. Federal investigators said they did not consider him a street gang member, merely an ambitious young man who grew up around gang members and, on occasion, may have employed the ones he trusted as couriers. He had been arrested only twice, both on apparently minor charges.
It remained unclear in the wake of Bennett's arrest how someone with as modest a criminal background became a partner of Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado, a Colombian cocaine kingpin who was arrested earlier this month and allegedly supplied Bennett with millions of dollars of cocaine each week.
By all accounts, Bennett--who was variously nicknamed "Waterhead Bo," "The Fat One" and "The Pig," according to federal investigators--was not even the roughest child in his family of eight children and stepchildren.
An older brother, Tony, 25, and a younger brother, Darron, 22, have each been arrested at least seven times on various drug, robbery and firearms charges. Darron served time in state prison for selling PCP.
Neither brother was charged in the federal complaint against Brian Bennett, but undercover officers said both were involved as couriers in Brian's drug operation--along with their mother, Minny Finley, who last year moved from the Florence Avenue home where the family had lived since the mid-1960s to a spacious, fortress-like home in Northridge. Finley has not been charged with any crimes.
Brian, by contrast, had been arrested on a PCP charge three or four years ago and last year for driving with a suspended license.
"He doesn't have a reputation for violence," said a Los Angeles Police Department official familiar with Bennett's operation.
Bennett's mother moved to Los Angeles with several children from Michigan, remarried and had several more, according to a neighbor on Florence Avenue. She worked as a dental receptionist and for an aerospace company. Most of her children went to Washington High School, but Brian was sent to live and attend school in the West San Fernando Valley, the neighbor said.
The neighbor, who spoke on the condition she not be identified, said Minny Finley's family seemed normal, except for a few noisy occasions in which police came to the house and arrested Darron Bennett. In recent years, Brian would come home occasionally, driving an expensive car.
The idea that Minny Finley could wind up carrying bags of drug money to various destinations on behalf of her son--an allegation made frequently by undercover federal investigators in their criminal complaint against Brian--was a surprise to her former neighbor.
"She was a hard-working woman," the neighbor said. "She's a very quiet woman. Minny was very, very strict about certain things."
The family's life began to change drastically two years ago when, according to investigators, Brian Bennett began buying and selling the cocaine that Villabona rovided.
An older businessman from Pasadena, Jimmy Washington, 42, was recruited by Bennett and Villabona to keep tabs on the money, investigators said. In October, 1987, Washington allegedly bought four check-cashing stores, regarded as ideal devices for laundering drug profits because they are not tightly regulated by the state or federal government, like banks, and because it is not unusual for operators of the stores to make large deposits of cash to banks.